Why I Love the Third Space

A post by Nathan Hill. In ministry, sometimes the best things are those you stumble upon by accident.

My story has been about “third spaces,” places that are not church and not home. They are neutral territories, out in the community, where intersections between strangers and guests happen a little freer than the guarded walls of our sacred gardens. "Third spaces” offer safety for everyone in shared conversation. Since no one is in their home or sanctuary, power is a little more balanced. The only person one can remove from the conversation is themselves.

I can point to many “third spaces” that have shaped my faith - bars, restaurants, coffee shops, parks, and museums. These backdrops have served up conversations, lectures, questions, and experiences that have shifted my perspectives and probed my faith. I’ve made friends who might have otherwise been enemies. I’ve been the cool kid among the outcasts and the outcast among the cool kids.

I didn’t discover “third spaces” by reading books or understanding theory. Instead, I sort of fell into it with some roomies who were interested in getting out and making connections in an unfamiliar city. Our effort grew bit by bit, as our little organic web stretched itself with each new person attracted or caught by the pull for community. Some people came once and left. Others were regulars. And none of that mattered, because we didn’t own anything. The space sort of belonged to everyone.

Jesus used “third spaces” all the time. Whether it was the town’s literal watering hole, distant mountainside, industrious beach, dusty roads, or city gates, he met people where they were. Like the woman at the well, he struck up conversations that intrigued, shocked, and delighted. There seemed to be something about Jesus that let others know it was okay to ask questions. He seemed to like having to stop and say, “Who touched me?” Jesus spent more time out and about his countryside, ranging far and wide, than within the walls of the temple.

If churches are serious about engaging their neighborhood in conversation, Jesus and the “third space” seems to point one way forward. Church buildings offer a lot of positives as far as a secure, comfortable space for conversation and privacy, but neighbors don’t have x-ray vision. Our community around us cannot see what we are up to. Third spaces open up windows not just for others to see the church but for the church to see others.

At East Dallas Christian Church, I continue to be blessed to do ministry in third spaces. Our regular Tuesday evening pub ministry provides that kind of neutral space for regular churchgoers and non-churchgoers  to intersect and talk about big and little questions. It’s surprisingly simple and effective ministry. It’s easy to invite people, because it’s at a pub with great pizza and cold drinks. If the conversation isn’t your cup of tea, the delicious pizza and local beer mean you’re still going to have a decent evening.

On the other hand, inviting people to worship can be like inviting someone to take a stroll through a minefield - no matter how hospitable you are, watch where you step!

Why not meet folks who are new to your church and your faith halfway? Why not see what your neighbors are talking about? Why not celebrate new restaurants and gathering places in your city?

You may just stumble on Jesus while you’re out.